Like any good documentary, “Beyond Borders: The Debate Over Human Migration” seeks to shed new light on an important, controversial topic and its less obvious but very relevant implications; it scours in search of diverse opinions on a given matter. In this case, the film struggles to answer the question: “Is it a basic human right to migrate?”
True, many serious films released in recent years have attempted to tackle issues of legal and illegal immigration. But while its aim to enlighten may render it similar to these other documentaries, “Beyond Borders” stands out from peers in at least one important way: It is utterly and hopelessly hilarious.
Maybe “utterly” and “hopelessly” are slight exaggerations. The accidental humor never endures for more than a few minutes at a time and, admittedly, director Brian Ging’s very sober intentions probably did not include sending a (re)viewer flying off her chair in fits of raucous laughter, though he masterfully succeeds in doing such. While most of the film does address the question of immigration in the contemplative, tactful way the issue merits, some of its most brilliantly illuminating moments actually coincide with its unintentional comedy.
Exhibit A: During the first five minutes of somber testimonial from authors, activists, professors and demographers, addressing the implications of U.S. immigration, Gustavo Arellano — author of the nationally syndicated column “Ask a Mexican!” — proudly pipes up: “I try to debunk stereotypes and demystify Mexicans for anybody who is afraid of them. Give Mexicans a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised and your mouth will be on fire from eating all the salsa.”
There are several more quotes presented throughout the film either against or in favor of immigration. But as the daughter of an illegal Mexican immigrant, the educational value of this particular quote is absolutely immeasurable: I, for example, had no idea I needed to be “demystified.” People are afraid of me? Cool! And who knew that — despite the fact that I am incapable of consuming hot Cheetos, let alone salsa, without choking — I can set mouths on fire? I am now mysterious, feared and powerful! Thanks, “Beyond Borders”! My Mexican comrades and I salute you with our big sombrero hats.
But despite the frequency of other, equally “enlightening” quotations from Arellano (some of which are inexplicably repeated two or three times throughout the documentary), the film carefully presents other, more relevant opinions on the divisive issue of immigration, ensuring that “Beyond Borders” is taken seriously. Arguments are presented by a spectrum of those interviewed, ranging from Yale Law School professor Owen Fiss and MIT professor Noam Chomsky to Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist and conservative radio celebrity Terry Anderson. But while such well-known personalities provide statistics and authoritative statements, it is the testimonies of the potential and actual immigrants themselves that make “Beyond Borders” memorable.
Ana Teresa Sosa, an immigrant from El Salvador who is now a U.S. citizen and works as a graphic designer, gives one of many compelling, first-hand accounts of immigration found throughout the documentary. With a quaking voice, she tells of her young nephew, kidnapped by Salvadorian mafia members who — in the belief that the family was “rich,” since Sosa sent money back home from America — demanded a half-million dollars for the boy’s return. After scraping together and handing over only $20,000 in what was thought to be a compromise, the boy was murdered anyway, illustrating the desperate “fight for survival” that motivates so many to come to America.
A unique aspect of “Beyond Borders,” besides Arellano’s idiotic remarks, is the issue of immigration from Haiti. Haiti’s extreme poverty and dangerous living conditions — and the voices of those who are desperate to leave them behind — are candidly portrayed. Once again, these testimonies add another dimension to the pleas of immigrants who “just want to work.” More than finding a job, they just want to survive.
The number of those interviewed in support of immigration looms far larger those in the opposition, making “Beyond Borders” an obviously pro-immigration film. But though this contradicts a claim to searching for a “middle ground,” one possible solution to ending the immigration debate once and for all is, in fact, proposed: “Everyone should just come together and have a carne asada,” Arellano (who else?) states.
Disregarding this obviously utopian solution, “Beyond Borders” offers no practical means by which a middle ground can be found. While the film presents, with humor and pathos, heretofore ignored aspects of “the debate” — like Sosa’s emotional story and Haiti’s particularly tragic situation — I’m afraid its investigation into a pressing problem will fail to budge anyone in an already firm position.